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Tzipi Livni, who leads the opposition in the Knesset as head of the largest party, Kadima, was named one of “150 Women Who Shake the World” in 2011 by Newsweek and The Daily Beast.
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Ada Yonath, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, is the first woman from the Middle East to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences.

Women’s Rights in Israel

The equal status of women in Israeli society dates back to the foundation of the Jewish state in 1948. The Declaration of Independence states that Israel “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

Legislative equality was later enshrined in the 1951 Women’s Equal Rights Law and cashed out in a series of laws dealing with everything from equal pay to sexual harassment and violence against women, many of them promoted through the Committee for the Advancement of Women in the Knesset. The legal guarantee of rights and freedoms has allowed women to be fully integrated in Israeli society and play a key role in politics, business, scientific research, art and culture.

Success in Diverse Arenas

The prominence of Israeli women merely begins with legislative equality. In politics, Israeli women have led the way, as members of the Knesset, heads of political parties and ministers in the government. The name Golda Meir, Israel’s fourth prime minister and the third female head of government in the modern world, is still revered throughout the world.

As of this writing, 24 women serve in the Knesset, constituting 20 percent of the 120-member parliament, which is similar to their share in European countries. Tzipi Livni, former foreign minister and vice prime minister, currently leads the opposition in the Knesset as head of the largest party, Kadima. Another female member of the Knesset, Dalia Itzik, was speaker of the parliament between 2006 and 2009, having previously served as the deputy mayor of Jerusalem and in several ministerial positions. And in September, Shelly Yachimovich beat four male competitors to become the leader of the Labor Party, the second woman to hold this position after Golda Meir.

Women are a central part of the Israeli judicial system. They comprise 51 percent of all judges and 44 percent of all active lawyers, and Israel’s Supreme Court is headed by a woman, Dorit Beinisch.

Women fill positions of authority long before they enter politics or choose to pursue law. Already at the age of 18, they are required to enter military service like their male counterparts and may quickly rise in the ranks to achieve leadership roles.

Though women contributed to fighting efforts as part of the Jewish community even before the establishment of Israel in 1948, their status in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was enshrined in 2000, with the passage of the Equality Amendment to the Military Service Law. This amendment states that “the right of women to serve in any role in the IDF is equal to the right of men.” A year later, the IDF abolished its Women’s Corps, and female soldiers now fall under the authority of individual units based on their position and not on gender.

Almost all IDF positions are open to women, across the Ground, Navy and Air Forces. Female soldiers can be found in anti-aircraft units, as combatants in the Artillery Corps and the “Oketz” elite canine unit, and as parachuting instructors. The first female jet fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force, Roni Zuckerman, received her wings in 2001, and in 2006 the IDF’s first coed infantry unit, the Karakal battalion, took part in the war against Hizballah in Lebanon. Most recently, the IDF named its first ever female major general, Orna Barbivai, who was promoted to head the IDF’s Human Resources Directorate. “I am proud to be the first woman to become a major general and to be part of an organization in which equality is a central principle,” Barbivai said.

Many of the traits needed for successful leadership in the military transfer to management positions in the business sector. It is thus no surprise that women have made a great deal of progress in the Israeli corporate world. Ofra Strauss, for example, serves as Chair of the Board of the Strauss Group, an international food and beverage company based in Israel. She has been consistently ranked by Fortune Magazine as one of the “Most Powerful Women in Business”. Galia Maor, President and CEO of Tel Aviv-based Bank Leumi, was named one of the world’s “100 Most Powerful Women” in 2007 by Forbes Magazine. Serving at the top post for almost two decades, Maor has been credited with transforming Bank Leumi into Israel’s biggest and most profitable bank.

“The business sector has witnessed an astonishing increase in the number of influential women entrepreneurs and CEOs,” says Professor Alice Shalvi, founding director of the Israel Women’s Network and winner of the 2007 Israel Prize.

The accomplishments of Israeli women in science and research are not only impressive within the Jewish state, but have also garnered global recognition. More than half the graduates of bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. programs are women. Professor Frances Raday, a prominent Israeli legal scholar and staunch advocate for gender equality, was recently chosen to join a U.N. Human Rights Council committee to eliminate discrimination against women. Perhaps the most extraordinary achievement is that of Ada Yonath, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her pioneering work on the structure of the ribosome. Yonath is the first Israeli woman to win the Nobel Prize out of ten Israeli Nobel laureates, the first woman from the Middle East to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences and the first woman in 45 years to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Women have been trailblazers in Israeli sports as well. Yael Arad was the first Israeli to win an Olympic medal, taking the silver medal in judo at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. Israel’s most celebrated Paralympic athlete is Keren Leibowitz, who won three swimming gold medals at the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney, and one gold, a pair of silver medals and one bronze at the 2004 Athens Paralympics.

A Stark Contrast

The embracement of female success in Israel stands in stark contrast to the discrimination faced by women throughout most of the Middle East. This discrimination, moreover, is often enshrined in law. “Deeply entrenched societal norms, combined with conservative interpretations of Shari‘a (Islamic law), continue to relegate women to a subordinate status,” concluded a 2010 report by Freedom House on women’s rights in the Middle East.

In Saudi Arabia, a debate about whether women should be allowed to drive rages on. They are required to have a male guardian who determines whether they may work, study, etc., and are prohibited from voting and running for office in the country, although King Abdullah has promised that this will change starting in 2015.

Women in Iran may face lashings or imprisonment for exposing any part of the body other than their hands and face, and sex segregation is required in public places. The current elections in Egypt are expected to yield an Islamist majority in parliament, headed by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). In its election program, the FJP calls for a reconsideration of Egypt’s participation in the 1979 U.N. Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. “The FJP has the greatest respect, appreciation and support for women’s role as wives, mothers and makers of men; and aims to better prepare them for this role,” says the party’s program.

Even in Israel, as in other countries, there is always room for further progress toward full gender equality. Equal pay in the workplace, for example, must be ensured as required by law.

“I think there’s a great improvement,” says Gabriella Shalev, Israel’s previous ambassador to the U.N. “This is really the age of women, and I think Israel is at the forefront.”

AIPAC Diamond Summer Intern Ariella Axler contributed to this report.